(The Center Square) – The U.S. Government Accountability Office found that the Social Security Administration has made billions of dollars in improper payments, including overpayments, to SSI beneficiaries, despite being tasked with reforming for years.
The GAO has made several recommendations to SSA to improve its processes, but the “SSA has not resolved delays in processing beneficiaries’ earnings information, which can lead to overpayments even if earnings are reported on time”, the GAO report said.
In addition, “SSA has not measured the effectiveness of the way it handles payment errors, despite our priority recommendation to do that.”
Part of the problem stems from the administration of work incentives and other employment support for transitional youth (14 to 17 years of age) receiving SSI benefits. A 2017 GAO analysis of SSA data from 2012 to 2015 found that less than 1.5% of SSI youth took advantage of the incentives.
Those who worked and received benefits at the same time were overpaid for various reasons. Excessive SSA payments “can be especially onerous if the recipients didn’t know they overpaid and spent the money,” the report adds.
Another problem stems from work incentives for working-age adults, the Ticket to Work and Self-Sufficiency Program (Ticket). The volunteer program is designed to help people with disabilities find paid work.
Overpayments can occur when beneficiaries who are working fail to report their earnings to SSA or are late in reporting their earnings, or when SSA has delays in adjusting their benefit amounts. SSA reported that SSI’s overpayment rate in fiscal 2019 was estimated at 8.13%, higher than other SSA programs.
In 2019, SSA overpaid about $4.6 billion in SSI of which it is aware.
Similarly, SSA’s Office of Inspector General found that SSA had not resolved delays in updating beneficiaries’ income information and that SSA has not implemented the GAO’s 2020 priority recommendation requiring it to develop and implement a process to measure the effectiveness of its corrective actions for inappropriate payments and overpayments.
As of July 2021, approximately 71% of SSI beneficiaries were minors or persons with disabilities of working age.
“SSA faces long-standing challenges in managing SSI and other disability programs,” said GAO, adding that it has released multiple reports with recommendations on how SSA might address these challenges.
The GAO also provided testimony during a recent hearing before the US Senate Finance Committee on Social Security, Pensions and Family Policy.
US Senator Sherrod Brown, D-OH, chaired the hearing, stressing that SSI “needs to be brought into the 21st century”. He recommended that program updates be included in the budget reconciliation account and sponsored the SSI Restoration Act to update the program.
SSI benefit levels and eligibility rules haven’t been updated since the 1980s, he added, and in many cases since the program’s inception in 1972.
This was the first Senate hearing addressed to SSI since 1998.
When asked whether removing SSI’s “maintenance and support-in-kind” rules would reduce SSI’s underpayments and overpayments, Elizabeth Curda, a director of GAO’s Education, Workforce, and Income Security team, said yes and no.
“We haven’t specifically worked on this issue, but it’s a mathematical truth that if you raise the income and income threshold, there will automatically be less people being overpaid. But there are some compensating effects to keep in mind. On the one hand, there would be fewer people in the status of over/underpayment in the short term.
“But in general, program costs will increase, because what was once an overpayment, subject to recovery, is now a program cost. In addition — to the extent that raising the cap reduces the population of individuals who may be eligible for benefits – this may also increase the number of SSI recipients.
“And then, even after the limits increase, improper payments, overpayments, underpayments can all remain an issue if the individual eligibility assessment system continues to operate the same way, with benefits that change as earning or living arrangements change. They may be occurring at a higher level.”